NEWS : Articles

Preserving Community Farm

by Laura Meisler for the Peoples Coop Newsletter

Ann Arbor MI-- About twenty minutes west of Ann Arbor, off a main drive and down a dirt road there's a sign that you might miss unless you were looking for it; it says Community Farm of Ann Arbor. Turn into the adjacent driveway, pass a blue farmhouse, and hidden behind the trees you'll find a thriving, small-scale farm.
Out in the fields are lush rows of winter squash, tomatoes, peppers, tat soi, garlic, flowers and corn. Purslane, lambs quarters and other edible plants that many farmers would yank out of their beds are allowed to flourish alongside the cultivated crops. Beehives and a pen for chickens stand near the aging but sturdy red barns. There is a cow pasture, and the farm site even has a composting toilet for visitors and workers.
Community Farm is a biodynamic farm. That means the farmers recognize the basic principles at work in nature and take them into account when coordinating the farm's activities. Biodynamic farmers go beyond accepted organic methods and strive to develop a sustainable, self-contained farm. This would include an active composting system to nourish the plants and feed grown to support the livestock that provide fertile manure. A biodynamic farm uses fertilizing and pest management methods that not only avoid negative impact, but work to restore and maintain balance.
Community Farm is community-owned, and its produce is shared equally between its membership of over 200 families. On share pickup days, the barn is bustling. Crates and boxes overflow with freshly picked vegetables, herbs and fruits. Cows and goats observe the activity placidly from their stalls as farm members stream in. People check the chalkboard to see how many of each item they get to take home, and fill their bags with their share of the farm's bounty.
Annie Elder and Paul Bantle, the primary farmers, chat with the farm's shareholders during pickup. Whether it's recipe swapping, information about growing or creative ideas on what to do with food, there's a constant exchange of information going on between the farm's members. "People teach each other things all the time," Annie says.
Community has always been a focus of the farm. Established 15 years ago, the farm's by-laws are based on those of the now-defunct Wildflour Bakery, Ann Arbor's community-owned and collectively operated bakery. Ownership in a CSA (community supported agriculture) farm encourages shareholders to come out to the farm, get to know the farmers and other members, and gain a strong connection to the source of their food. When the farm moved from its original site 10 years ago, members pitched in to help. Annie recounts, "Many members brought equipment, plants, soil, seed and chickens over to the new site in the middle of winter."
Community Farm has served not only as a provider of food but also a place of learning. "U of M's School of Natural Resources sees the farm as a huge resource," says Annie, citing the yearly visits made by students. Field trips from all sorts of schools and organizations travel to the farm each year in the spring and fall, and the young people that visit always seem to enjoy learning where food comes from, she said. Many of them also make fast connections with the farm animals, and are excited to try what to them are exotic veggies like rutabaga. According to Paul, "There's a huge emphasis here on making it a good experience for children."
Paul and Annie work full time at the farm, working 80-hour weeks at the peak of the season. This year they have 14 apprentices who are paid and also given produce. "Many of the apprentices we've worked with have started their own farms and CSA's," says Annie.
In order to protect the future of Community Farm, a relationship has formed between the landowner, the Farm and Washtenaw Land Trust, whose goal is to protect farmland, natural areas and open space. Most of the undeveloped land in Washtenaw County is used for agriculture, and as the county's population grows so does the trend to develop farmland into housing. If enough money can be raised, WLT would purchase the development rights for the land used by Community Farm from the landowner, allowing the landowner to retain her asset while ensuring the land is used for agricultural purposes in perpetuity. Community Farm would then sign a 99-year lease with the landowner, and even if the Farmwent defunct the land would still be preserved for agriculture. "This arrangement would be a stepping stone into this area for farm preservation," says Paul.
Paul says farm preservation is especially critical in this part of the country. Michigan has the most diverse offering of crops in the U.S. after California, and living here we get to take advantage of all that local farming. "We need to protect that," says Paul.
Between $65,000 and $70,000 is needed to secure the property's development rights; so far $20,000 has been pledged or donated. Community Farm is hosting a music festival fundraiser on October 13. "The festival is one way to give support, by attending and celebrating," says Paul. "Another is by making pledges, either at the event or at another time."
"When there are places like this, there are opportunities for people to do good," says Annie. "When they do good work they feel really good even if they weren't trying to." For more information, contact Community Farm of Ann Arbor 734-433-0261, or Washtenaw Land Trust 734-302-5263.

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